Training Hike #1: The Ocean to Lake Trail
Night one: Around 8 p.m. Vince Strawbridge says goodbye as he drops me off at the Nane trailhead on Lake Okeechobee. I watch as he drives away and my eyes slowly adjust to the splendor of moonlight and stars. I have desperately desired to escape from the light pollution haze that I had been living in since finishing the Pacific Crest Trail last October.
I made my way across the road and into the darkened forest. There was obnoxiously loud music down the street that I could hear for the first few miles. My ears honed in to the sounds of nature as I began to settle into my pace. I was now on the Ocean to Lake trail. Sixty-two miles of unknown lay ahead of me. I push about four miles mostly following roads, and when I finally reach what feels like wilderness, I settled in for the night. The coyotes and cows in the distance serenading me to sleep.
Day One: I had a cold night, and woke up wet and shivering; the fog must have rolled in. I hiked out of camp wearing all my layers. As the sun rose it warmed up quickly. A few miles in I saw two other hikers still in camp, but I didn’t approach them. I was honestly surprised to see anyone else.
Around mile ten I start to smell smoke and saw ash flying through the air. I’m immediately concerned. I scanned the horizon and saw a large smoke cloud to my west. After a quick Google search, I find an article talking about controlled burning of 3,000 acres around Lake Okeechobee, so I conclude it’s safe to push forward. I was thrilled I had signal or that would have stressed me out all day. I always bash on technology but am frequently thankful that I have it.
I finished my day on Bowman Island. It’s very secluded. Other than the two people I saw this morning, I haven’t seen a soul all day. So if solitude is your game the Ocean to Lake trail is for you. To get to the island, you would typically have a water crossing, but because the water is so low, I had a bog crossing. I made it to the other side with heavy feet from the mud clinging to my shoes and found my campsite. After collecting water, I managed to get a fire going. I cooked next to it. Letting my feet breathe by the fire from the day’s soggy trail. Around dusk, the mosquitoes come out. So I douse my fire and crawl into my bivy sack. Then an orchestra of owls, four of them, began hooting in sequence within feet of my camp. It was an interestingly haunting experience. It promised to be much warmer than last night.
Day two: Woke up to what sounded like a pterodactyl alarm clock. As I started packing up, I realized that there was an owl perched above my tarp. I watched it for a moment and then finished what I was doing.
Back on the trail, it has become a maze of off-road vehicle tracks and rooted up plots of ground from wild hogs. The tracks make it hard to know which trail is the right one, so I search for blazes. The orange blazes on the trees, which mark the path, are abundant but not always apparent with the overgrown foliage.
As the day progresses, I came upon a wetlands bypass option. I ignore it and push through the mushy bog. Mud seeped into my shoes, as I fought the suction to the other side. On the other side, I stop to let my feet air out, change socks, and have lunch.
After lunch, I have a few road walks and finally saw an alligator. It was in a culvert to my left but darted under the water before I could get my camera up. I was beginning to think I’d hike this whole trail and not see a single reptile. The rest of the day had waterless stretches, very sore feet, and a lot of wild hogs; 15 at last count. In camp, the moon is huge, and my campsite has a beautiful silver light over it. Mosquitoes were terrible again but cleared up as the temperatures drop. 11.7 miles to the end and I’m ready for a burger.
Day three: I woke up with a chill. A thick fog had moved in. After doing my morning rituals, I quickly packed up and hit the trail. The trail had a dense layer of fog over it until the sunrise. Seeing the sunrise and sunset on the same day is one of my favorite things about thru-hiking. It reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael:
“It’s seeing all those sunsets that does it. You can’t watch a sunset and then go off and set fire to your neighbor’s tepee. Living close to nature is wonderful for your mental health.”
The sentiment is felt, and I always get a chuckle from it. My shoes are feeling heavy over the sand dunes, from the caked on mud of the last few days. I underestimated the Ocean to Lake Trail. With only a few miles left the trail becomes a road walk. After spending days in solitude, walking into civilization is disconcerting. I walk over the drawbridge to Hobe Sound and enjoy the sailboats floating by underneath. I think to myself about future adventures and push the last mile to the beach. At the beach, I am overwhelmed by the amount of tourists. So I touch the ocean, give a little silent cheer, and find a bench in the shade until Vince arrives to pick me up. The Ocean to Lake Trail was a good wake-up call for my trail legs and formidable training grounds for new gear. As always the trail gave me what I needed and I am thankful.
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